Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.
The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.
As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”
In an interview with Asymptote back in 2013, Can Xue told her two interviewers “every reader must stand up and perform in order to enter the realm of experimental literature.” There is a certain degree of passivity we assume when picking up a book—or opening a webpage. We move away from the idea that literature can be and is art, and that successful art should engage and challenge. Good writing in particular suffers from the praise of being able to easily ‘draw people in’ and that the role of the reader is purely, passively, to watch as it unfolds. Can Xue protests the idea that understanding should simply come to the reader. Her writing is both a process and a performance and must be met with equal depth.
Much of the information and details in her work lead to paradox. As soon as the reader gains their footing, the earth shifts beneath them. “Nothing seemed to be a secret, yet everything was mysterious at the same time. Take the blocked-up wall out front, for example: it seemed to be made of brick, but after noon, it became adobe. And the next morning, it was restored to brick. After being here only two days, he spotted this mystery and told the director about it. She patted him on the shoulder and said, ‘Young man, you have very good prospects.’” A tropical garden appears and disappears in midair, tended to by a gardener who is apparently older than the town itself and is only visible to certain individuals. The Design Institute, employer to many of the townspeople, betrays an echo of Kafka, occupying a wasteland “with countless little black birds in the weeds–the kind of bird that comes and goes, filling the sky and earth. Many black people walk out of the office building. They are very kind and gentle people. Day after day, they keep getting lost in the wasteland. When the setting sun lengthens their shadows, they grow anxious and scurry around.”
The purpose of Can Xue’s paradox is to simultaneously blur the landscape and magnify it—even her name is a pseudonym that means both “the dirty snow that refuses to melt” and “the purest snow at the top of a high mountain.” Plainly, we are no longer examining paradox from afar, but directly engaging with it. José, Luijin’s father, echoes our discomfort:
From the apartment to the east came Lee’s loud singing. This man was so strange. José remembered seeing the tropical garden at his place. Beginning last night, José felt he was at the center of the world. Nor this feeling was even stronger. Could it be that everything revolved around him? Indeed, what kind of person was ‘José’? He heard Lee sing of a tortoise, and José trembled. Pebble Town residents really had many things in common. Their ideas and intentions were usually similar. At the end of José’s field of vision were some vague contours: Was this the snow mountain? In the daytime, people talked of the mountain, and he could see it from a distance, but he hadn’t been there even once. It was a locale that he absolutely did not understand. Could it be connected with his daughter’s life? In Lee’s song, the tortoise died, and José calmed down a little.
What Can Xue demands from her reader is a willingness to confront the paradox within us, the paradox of self. As her characters grapple with the ethereal fluidity of life in Pebble Town, as she herself writes of her own struggle, so does the reader choose to identify with their own. It is a continual process for the reader, due to the dynamic nature of the writing and the author’s unrelenting resistance to passivity. Frontier is revealing as a work of art, but also as a window into Can Xue’s worldview of spirit, nature and self-discovery.
Can Xue has been known to say that those who find her work unreadable are simply not her readers. It is a bold statement, but one entirely free of self-regard, if you consider the context of her work. Those who grapple with finding an intellectual basis or rationale will never see beyond her paradox: it is there for perhaps that very reason. Can Xue wants the reader to interact with her writing through their own experiences—through the lens of our personal struggle with the paradox of life—because it is through her own struggle that she is able to create such a work. Only in a moment like this can the reader identify with a sense of freedom and the fulfillment that arises from it. The residents of Pebble Town repeatedly come up against contradiction—they came to the frontier for answers and, upon turning inwards, they find peace and freedom. Luijin searches her memories of childhood, retracing a trip she and her father took to the Gobi Desert; Little Leaf moves away from her parents to live by the flow of the river and slowly realises the limits of her perspective; the director breeds poisonous butterflies that, beautiful in their short-lived existence, are released in the grounds of the hospital just before she dies.
Luijin visits her:
“I work in the hospital that you haven’t once visited for decades. I’m old now, much older than your mama. Back then, the city didn’t yet exist. The hospital came first. I was the charge nurse.” …The charge nurse’s words had once again proved one thing that many people had attested to. At this point, Luijin sensed an upsurge of intense emotion. Many small lattices appeared in her mind. And each lattice held rare items.
“She can do intravenous injections,” the parrot said in an old voice.
“We have everything here!” Luijin said to the bird.
“Everything? That’s good.”
Chaos and impermanence are themes in Can Xue’s work that are often revealed through communication. In The Last Lover, a novel that won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, she writes “this Earth holds some people who, although not through language, and not through close association and exchange of emotions, can still, from estranged distance and silence, reach deeper levels of communication.” Her stories are filled with deeper meaning and layers of inter-lapping dialogue, much of which is non-verbal. Pebble Town itself seems to act as an enormous transmitter for such signals: “…a huge magnetic field, attracting people who are fascinated with secret things.” Its structures and vegetation feel hollow and transient to the life within, like a stick of bamboo in the wind: “[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people. Every time before a major incident occurred in her life, the scenery all around was filled with particularly intense intimations of it.” The town is brimming with wildlife, and, perhaps more than anything else there, they are ferociously alive. Snow leopards prowl the forest at the base of the Snow Mountain and Mongolian wolves haunt the market place. Birds, frogs, centipedes, butterflies, pangolins, sheep, turtles and cats appear and disappear in parabolic, dreamlike ways. As Grace says, upon finding a black-coloured bird, “this is a wagtail; a wagtail is the bird of destiny. It shows up when people are paying no attention, and it goes into hiding when someone notices it.” Often, Can Xue portrays in the animal what her human character lacks, or perhaps is seeking. In their last letter to Luijin, her parents note “we’ve changed a lot, but compared with our turtle, we’re still far behind…”
The residents are connected by more than just language, as their thoughts and memories seemingly transcend barriers of time and space, and the material takes on elements of the sublime. “All kinds of subtle things were transmitted through crowds. It was especially true in Pebble Town. Here, everyone revealed some message when speaking, even though the one speaking was unaware of it.” Can Xue’s direction is often subtle. Her world encapsulates the exact idea that she demands from her readers, one of freedom through communication and balance. Things pass, violent and intense, mundane or ethereal, and often go unnoticed, but the balance in the heart of Pebble Town always remains.
It is this harmony that makes reading her work such a magical and unique process, and one that is beautifully reworked for her English translations. Can Xue taught herself English in the nineties and, has since, worked closely with her translators. Frontier, due out this month, is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, both of whom have worked with Can Xue on many of her novels and short stories, most recently her collection Vertical Motion.
Can Xue reminds us of the inherently intimate experience of reading. True reading; not half-dazed and perfunctory, gliding over the surface details of a story, but bending one’s head low into the water and staring into the chilly, murky depths below. As senses of linearity and space fade away, she succeeds in bringing to life what is so often overlooked and in a style that is entirely her own. There is a gravity to her work that refuses to escape attention yet demands so much more—she remains her own mountain in the world of literature, capped with snow, ready and waiting for those daring to climb.
“When Luijin passed beneath her window, the parrot said to her, ‘The good days are coming!’ Luijin laughed, and so did the parrot.”
Beau Lowenstern is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Australia and resides in Melbourne. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with a BA, and went on to further study in France and the Middle East with experience in French, German, Spanish and Arabic. He is a film maker and writer of short stories and poetry and is currently working on a novel based around his childhood memories of school. He works as an editor and periodical translator and enjoys spending the day going between a book and his garden.
Read More Book Reviews: